Why you're probably mis-sorting your plastic waste

Anyone who deals with the topic of plastic waste quickly learns that not all plastic is the same. And recycling is particularly complex due to the variety of materials. If this succeeds, however, raw materials can be produced from recycling material today that correspond in quality to new plastics, but save around 50 percent CO2.

“If you do it right, you can’t think of a better recycling material than plastic,” says Manica Ulcnik-Krump. It’s almost infinitely reusable and can be molded into all sorts of new products. “You can play with the molecular structure and the Energy consumption is low”. Ulcnik-Krump heads the plastics research center of the recycling group Alba. The facts, she says, are clear: “You need between 200 and 250 degrees Celsius for plastic processing, for glass it is over 800 degrees, for metal a good 1000 degrees,” she says. And even paper is more problematic given the high water requirement.

It’s just that you’re not doing it right at the moment. The recycling rate for packaging plastic was around 40 percent in 2018, just half the rate for glass and paper. The reasons are complex. They lie with the manufacturers and their requirements for the packaging, the technical possibilities of reprocessing, but also with each individual. Because despite the yellow bin and the other recycling bins, we tend to separate our packaging waste carelessly.

What can the end consumer do to ensure that more plastic becomes new products again? Separate and above all separate better. It doesn’t have to be the same as in Sweden, where private households are supposed to separate three different types of plastic. “As an initiative, we would be happy if a lot more packaging ended up in the yellow bin and not in household waste,” says Axel Subklew. Recycling always comes with a loss. About a quarter of the material delivered is lost for various reasons during sorting and subsequent processing into recyclate. This can be heavy soiling or complex packaging whose components are difficult to separate.

So if you want to support better recycling of packaging, all you have to do is peel off the film from the hard plastic tray or unscrew the plastic lid from the beverage carton before it goes into the yellow bin. This makes mechanical sorting work easier and leads to purer recycling materials. Although the sorting systems are becoming more and more sophisticated, as soon as two different recyclables are stuck together, the machine decides on the allocation. Then it is no longer pure.

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